I imagine what it would have been like for Danny the day he found his girl, the flesh of his flesh, distorted and cold. He’s looking for Dana, his daughter, who didn’t come home last night. He scans his sixty acres—the cows and tobacco fields—a second job to his first as a CNC machinist, the kind of factory worker who monitors machines that, made of metal, cut metal. He is a quiet man, tall, with a long dark beard, not too short brown hair, clear blue-gray eyes, a gentle voice. This Tennessee winter day is not so unlike any other—frost lies thick on dead leaves, which cover the wilted grass with their damp weight, and trees stand like bony structures against the early morning sky. The heat of Danny’s boots melts the frost, leaving behind his footprints, marking a clear trail from the front door of his home to his truck. He has an uneasy feeling as he jiggles his keys in his pocket, removes them, and, just before he unlocks the pickup, notices Dana’s car not too far in the distance. He puts the keys back in his pocket and sets off toward the car, picking up speed when he sees the silhouette of her body in the driver’s seat. The driver’s side window is shattered, and fragments of glass are piled in her lap. Some are stuck in her hair, and the rising sun reflects brilliantly from each tiny piece, decorating her cold body with color, the glass making her appear a kind of rainbow. Her hair is a mess of blood, the soft contents of her skull, and jagged clumps of shattered bone. She is pale, and there is no movement, no trace of breath, no gleam in her one open eye. Still, Danny holds his own breath so that he might hear hers, reaches for her wrist—hopeful for a pulse.
“Dana, can you hear me?” he asks.
No response. He stares at his girl, becomes fixated on her tiny hands, which lie blue and limp at her sides. He takes off his coat and wraps it around her body.
Sean, my older brother, works in the tobacco fields in the spring and summer, but not in the autumn, after the tobacco stalks are pierced and hung to dry for months. He returns to the job in winter, when brisk air lingers in bones and stiffens the earth, and the tobacco stalks are pulled down and shucked, the darkened leaves divided into separate piles according to their grade. Working tobacco is a second job, one Sean goes to only when he feels like it or wants the extra money. I think he uses the cash to buy junk food and tobacco on his way to Cherokee Lake for fishing when the water is high or for mudding when the waters are drained for winter.
Danny’s an easy employer and tells Sean that if I’m interested, he’ll hire me, too. Though I’ve never touched any part of a tobacco plant, outside of the cigarettes I’ve stolen now and then, I want money, and I want out of the house and all the work that comes with it. At first, Patti, our mother, says I can’t go, says she needs me at home, but I plead with her, and Sean insists he doesn’t want to work on the farm without me, so eventually she allows me to go, but only now and then, for a few hours at a time. She doesn’t like to be left alone with my four little brothers and my only sister.
I’ve seen the drag on Saturday nights in downtown Rogersville. People my age gather in cars and drive slow and steady down Main Street, turn by the Hardee’s, and either make the block or pull over and make out in the Food City parking lot. Nobody seems unhappy—silly, maybe, or bored. My father says they are all just wasting gas to show off their cars. My mother says the drag is a sin, full of sinful people, and things happen to sinful people. At nearly sixteen, I’m not jealous of the kids on the drag, but curious. I wouldn’t know what to say if a boy asked me into his car, wouldn’t know how to talk because my speak is from a world that doesn’t allow me to go to school, that hasn’t allowed that since I was in the first grade, and he wouldn’t be able to understand my world any more than I could understand his.
Later, after meeting Danny, I’ll wonder if his daughter met her boyfriend, Mike, at the drag, and if he, being just too old for high school, rode the drag and looked for girls that might let him fog up the windows. Then I’ll think of what it would be like to be pregnant in high school. Then I’ll just wonder about high school; after all, I already know what pregnancy looks like—my mother filled me in on every detail of that, starting with her first pregnancy test. It’s weirdly funny, to feel dread at the sight of a positive pregnancy test not your own, secretly hoping that your mother will miscarry because the thought of tending to another child is exhausting. I wonder if Dana wished that on herself, to fall down the stairs or something—anything to get rid of the thing growing inside her. That’s what I’d have done: starved myself and then thrown my body down some stairs for good measure. But Dana didn’t do any of those things. She became a mother and went on living. I wonder if she ever regretted her choice, or if, when she looked at her daughter, her heart hurt out of too much love.
Bundled up in a thick flannel shirt, dark green coat, blue jeans, and the new pair of boots Sean bought me, I wipe at my dripping nose with my sleeve. It’s just a bit after five in the morning, and I stay out of sight by sitting on the cold concrete steps of our back porch. No way Mom will come outside this early, I think. It’s still dark outside—not even pink hints of light have snuck over the hills. My ears are fine-tuned for sounds that could wake the children, and knowing that all of my younger siblings are early risers and not very sound sleepers, I wish Sean would hurry up. Every noise causes me to catch my breath as I listen for the sounds of Katherine’s cry or one of the boys’ small but quick-paced steps. Finally, the soft creak of the screen door is followed by the sound of Sean’s footsteps.
“Cold out here,” he whispers.
“Not too bad,” I reply.
“Boots good?” he asks.
“Uh huh. Thanks. I’ll pay you back,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it, Rachel. You gotta have new shoes every once in a while. Besides, those were cheap.”
I wonder if this—the perfect new work boots, warm and still smelling of oiled leather, along with the help getting out of the house (he’s never given a shit about working alone)—is Sean’s attempt to say he’s sorry. He’ll never speak of it, and neither will I, but I won’t forget his hands wandering in the darkness. I look at him now, driving with a stern look, his eyes with the same muted purple beneath them that he’s had since he was a child, and I love the child him. The brother everyone thought was my twin when we were younger, the boy who could throw a baseball better than any kid his age, who always took the fish off the hook so I didn’t have to, who loved candy more than any person I’d ever known. And then I hate this grown-up him, hate him because he made me a target inside a house where I was defined only by my sex.
The way my mother demanded modesty made me feel as if being a girl were my fault, as if my body made me a sinner before I even figured out exactly what sin was. She would make me model my clothes in front of my father while my brothers looked on in the background. It wasn’t that my father cared all that much about what I wore; he was quiet on most subjects and let my mother go about her business. Let her strike the kids for no reason and then lock herself up in her room for days on end. She said she prayed. And I suspect she did pray, sometimes getting the answers she wanted between burning herself with cigarettes and sleeping the day away. Sometimes, she’d show us those perfectly round burns on her wrists and ankles. I used to try and break into her bedroom when I smelled the smoke, to prevent her from putting hot ash against her soft flesh, but after a while, I stopped caring. Later, after I got out of that house, I heard she set her bedroom on fire. It was said to be an accident, but I knew better. She’d left a candle burning next to lace curtains while my little siblings, all of them under ten years old, sat in that house alone. Maybe I was too ready to think the worst of my mother, but there was something about that fire, something about her, that made me think she set it on purpose.
It’s a strange thing, to love and hate my brother like this; it’s something I can’t make sense of. So I stare out the windows, at the hills—all dried up and yellow—rolling everywhere around me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the earth was choking to death in the chill of a snowless winter.
At Danny’s farm, I quickly learn not to touch my eyes after handling the tobacco because it burns them intensely, especially when the plant is still green. I won’t discover the difference between the green and brownish-red plants until summertime, when the green stalks grow up out of the ground in humid fields. The sting of sweat will slide into my eyes and make them run like the eyes of a child smarting from the sting of a switch across bare legs or of a mother’s perfectly aimed slap.
Danny has put together a small crew to shuck his tobacco: Mike, Danny Jr., Sean, and me. Not much is said among the five of us because Sean’s naturally shy and I’m not used to being out of the house or interacting with people outside of my family since we moved to Rogersville about a year ago. As for the others, well, I just assume they aren’t big talkers. But then, Danny mentions deer hunting, and each man quickly picks up the speak of bucks, bows, tree stands, rifles, and deer piss.
Shuck, shuck, shuck. The methodic rhythm of ripping leaf after leaf from stalk after stalk has a way of slowing time, and as the hunting talk picks up, my mind wanders, and I notice that if I squint just right, I can see the sunlight peeking through the cracks between the long planks of wood that make up the shaky barn walls, the pathetic barrier between one sad place and another. Somewhere, beyond those hills, deer are trying to get fat for the fawns they carry. I wonder if they move slower when they’re pregnant, or if when a hunter is shameful enough to kill after the rut, he ever notices signs of a swollen belly or pieces of a would-be fawn mingled in with the entrails and guts he removes from her body. I suppose the fawn is better off dead anyways. Too many deer in these hills—she’d probably starve to death if a hunter didn’t get her.
I like to think of Danny as a kind hunter, the kind of man who took his boy and girl out in the woods as soon as they were old enough and taught them what he knew: the way to stay quiet, to never shoot a deer with the white spots of youth or a swollen gut, to aim always to kill, and if for some reason the first shot wasn’t fatal, always to be quick to fire another. To never let a creature suffer. “Don’t waste what nature gives you,” he’d say, as he knelt down with a blade, showing his children how to gut the animal.
By the time I’ve worked for a few weeks, both in the morning and evening hours, I get comfortable enough around Danny to look him in the eye instead of at the ground when he offers a friendly hello. He’s kind to me, always gentle when he speaks. He offers that he grew up in Rogersville and asks how I like the place. I’m honest when I say I wished we still lived in Kingsport, because there I’d been able to train in ballet, the only thing that ever got me out of the house. He understands how it might be hard to give that up for working on a tobacco farm. I agree, but don’t tell him so, and instead tell him how the work is good, how it lets me save up for going some place else. Sean is quiet when I say this to Danny, perhaps because he knows the money won’t get me far.
I like listening to Danny and Danny Jr. speak of Dana and her daughter, Leah. In a way, I’m almost envious of Dana—not of her child, and certainly not of her boyfriend, but of her freedom to come and go from her house as she pleases, and of the love her father so clearly has for her. Had he always loved this way? How was it when Dana looked at him and confessed Mike had got her pregnant? Was his voice still calm and gentle? Did she cry? Did she say right away she was going to keep it? Did he worry more about money, about the new mouth to feed, body to clothe, love to give? Did she ask him to help, or did she know he would never make her ask?
Mike tends to speak up a bit more when Danny isn’t around, but I stay cold-faced and quiet around him. It isn’t that I have any idea he will eventually murder Dana when she attempts to leave him. It’s not as if I look at him and see a killer, though his violent acts will not surprise me, which doesn’t mean much because, for the most part, I wouldn’t be surprised by any man’s violence. After Mike’s crime, I’ll picture his round face screwed up in anger, turning red, making his blond hair appear lighter, as he wraps a chubby finger around the trigger. But for now, it’s simply the way Mike speaks to me that grates on my nerves, and I prefer the maddening but softer sound of working the tobacco to his voice. The quiet doesn’t last, though; silence is not something Mike seems comfortable with, and it doesn’t take him long to strike up a conversation.
“Kind of dainty to be out here, aren’t ya? What are you, fourteen?” Mike asks, looking at me.
“Fifteen. And I’m working just as good as you,” I say, tossing aside yet another freshly shucked stalk.
“So. You used to be a ballet dancer,” he says, ignoring my response.
“Still am,” I say. “Just have to take some time off, that’s all.”
“Time off, my ass!” Sean says.
I glare at Sean, toss a half-shucked plant to the floor, and then turn to leave. I walk the distance from the barn to a pile of remnants that, at one time, was some kind of shed. I walk away because I know Sean’s right; I know it’s not simply a break. My mother might call it a break, but the truth is she has no intention of letting me return to the studio. I huddle down behind the broken planks and cracked foundation to light a stolen cigarette. The wind is picking up—stings my nose and eyes with its icy whip, cutting and sharp. I shut my eyes to protect them from the wind and attempt to hold back tears that have nothing to do with the cold. I get closer to the ground and feel the wet mud dampen the rear end of my pants. The sun has long been hidden by the shades of an overcast sky, and the hills feel more lonely than ever—vast and unyielding. I try to remember the perfect heat of stage lights, how they had a way of baking my skin and warming every part of me perfectly. And the music, how the notes pushed their sound around corners, through walls, and over the theater’s thick velvet curtains. Then comes a long note, subtle, soft. It fills my ears; it’s the wind picking up momentum, slipping over hills and through slumbering tree limbs. It is the sound of right now, and it is not for me, but it is on me, around me, over me, through me, cold and unforgiving. Slowly, the wind’s sound brings me back to the dampness, to the now that both pushes against my longing—the hurt for something lost and the desire for something better, the need for something better—and forcefully replaces it with a reality that demands submission and numbness.
Again, I find myself wondering about Dana, whether she feels anything like what I feel or if she is happy with her life, happy with Mike. Out of shape, obese, flattop-wearing, mustache-sporting, always-dropping-nasty-comments-about-sex Mike. Mostly, I ignore him. What is there to say? He has his ways. Still, I can’t help but imagine Dana is with Mike because she doesn’t know what else to do. Though, wouldn’t her dad help? Danny can’t stand to see suffering. Maybe the love that was once between Dana and Mike has dissipated, and she doesn’t yet know how to walk away from her child’s father. The truth is that outside of what her father and brother say about her, I don’t know much of anything about Dana, have only ever seen her walking out of the house to her car, a smallish figure, as the house sits a good half-mile from the barn. I’ve only been able to make out her long black hair, which, even from a distance, looks beautiful and wavy. Dana’s only three years older than me, but that doesn’t mean much. She has a kid—something that separates her from me.
I walk back to the barn, pick up the stalk I’d thrown on the ground, and begin to remove its leaves. When I look up from my work, Mike is staring off through the door, shucking the tobacco quickly and with precision.
Sean is looking right at me and says, “Well, we better get you home before Mom gets upset.”
I don’t say anything as I remove my gloves, black with the sticky residue from the tobacco, and make my way to the Chevy.
A few days later, I dress myself for the cold hours ahead in the barn. I get to spend the whole morning working because it’s Saturday and, for once, my father is going to stay home and help look after the kids. When I walk into the kitchen, Sean tells me we aren’t going.
“Why not?” I ask, unable to hide the disappointment in my voice.
“I just got off the phone with Danny. He says Dana’s dead.”
“She is not, don’t say shit like that, it’s fucked up!”
“Yeah, she is. Mike shot her two days ago. Danny said they’ve been fighting about her moving to Knoxville. She was leaving him.”
I lean against the stove, stare at my boots, and wonder what will become of Leah, now the child of a dead mother and a murdering father.
“Danny says the funeral information is in the obituary. Want to ask Mom if you can ride down to Lakeshore Market with me and pick up a newspaper?”
“Let’s just go. She’ll say no if I ask.”
“Okay,” Sean says, picking up the keys from the kitchen countertop.
We both go inside to buy the paper, taking our time meandering through Lakeshore Market, the small place that serves as a gas station, grocery store, bait shop, and deer weighing station. I fixate on the cracks running through the smooth concrete floor, notice the dampness that seems to seep up through the thin spaces, the musty smell coming from the dank water, the open minnow tanks, the dark soil full of night crawlers. Through the window I notice a hunter pulling a deer carcass from the back of his truck and placing it, not too gently, onto the scales. I go outside, leaving Sean to buy the newspaper, and watch the hunter smile and say to another hunter, “Yeah, she’s not much to be proud of, little thin, but she’ll make some nice jerky and ground meat.”
The tip of the deer’s tongue sticks out the side of her mouth, pink and swollen, her brown eyes glassy and dull, and a bit of blood oozes from a small hole in her side. I hope the bullet ended her life quickly, painlessly.
Back at home, we spread out the newspaper on the kitchen table and read its small print. We’re curious about Dana’s obituary, and curious about what to expect at the services to come, neither one of us ever having been to a funeral. I read over Dana’s obituary many times, and then find myself reading the other obituaries in the paper, surprised to find no accidents, no unexplained death of a youth, and no illness that comes outside of old age. It’s a small town, and calm deaths are to be expected, too. Today, the obituaries all sound the same, or at least nearly the same. Dana’s stands out only because she is so young, the youngest death in the paper by a few decades. Most of the other people had lived their whole lives in Rogersville, Tennessee. Most of them left behind generations that would also grow old and die in Rogersville.
Dana’s head seems sunken, as if something is missing, and this makes sense because something is missing: a large portion of her skull, all those pieces of bone and brain that had been blown off and out, spread in and around her car like bloody confetti. Yet, despite her misshapen skull, her hair still looks as beautiful as ever, lying in thick dark curls around her face. I guess her eyes had been blue, like Danny Jr.’s, only now, red surrounds that blue of his. He has cried for days, but in a silent kind of way. The whole family has a way of being silent, and then not silent at all. Dana’s mother, a woman I’d never seen and had heard very little of, has a wet face, and the way she looks up at people paying their condolences has the expression of a question, but no one can offer her any answers. There are only sad and sympathetic looks and mumbled apologies, and still, she keeps looking, keeps asking. But it is Danny’s appearance that is most shocking. He wears the look of a beaten man, all sadness and wounds. His shoulders are bent; his face, sunken. Dark circles offset the gray-blueness of his eyes, and even his beard seems to droop with the weight of his loss.
Sean and I take a seat at the back of the church. Red carpet covers the floor. The wooden pews are cushioned in the same color of red, and the lights are a severe yellow.
“I can’t believe that piece of shit! I just don’t know how he could have done it,” Sean whispers.
I don’t say anything back; instead, I keep staring at the velvet dress that covers Dana’s body. I’m not surprised. Mike had it in him, after all—she was leaving him for something different, something better, somewhere better. He couldn’t have that, couldn’t let her have that, couldn’t let her be more than what he wanted her to be. So he, surrounded by a Southern landscape already too familiar with tragedy, put a shotgun against the pristine glass of her car window and pulled the trigger.